The Adairsville softball team will face plenty of talented teams in 2019, but the Tigers might have seen their toughest opponent of all in their season opener.
Facing perennial Class 6A state-title contender Allatoona on the road to begin the year proved to be a little bit too much for Adairsville on Wednesday, as nerves seemed to get the better of the Tigers in the early stages. Aided by some shaky defense by its Class 3A opponent, the Buccaneers hung six runs in the first frame en route to an 11-3 victory in five innings.
"I felt like we didn't come out confident in our defense, which is where we should be confident," Adairsville head coach Amanda Nelson said. "We made a couple of errors that shook us. [Thursday], I expect they make that adjustment and come out with confidence in the strong part of our game.
"Take away that first inning, and we're playing ball with them. That's encouraging. We just have to come out ready to play ball from inning one."
In the lead up to the start of the season, which for Adairsville was originally supposed to take place last Friday at Cartersville, Nelson spoke extensively about the team's defense. The Tigers' third-year head coach said several players had been tried out at different positions in hopes of replacing the team's five graduates.
It's likely that defensive lineup will still need some juggling, although it's entirely possible first-inning and first-game jitters were more to blame than anything. Even still, Wednesday's matchup with a program that finished as state runner-up in 2017 and in third place last year gave a glimpse at Adairsville's potential.
After allowing the six runs in the opening frame, the Tigers gave up two in the second, one in the third and two in the fifth on a walk-off homer to invoke the run-rule. However, a few of those runs were easily preventable with missed popups and a dropped third strike aiding a Bucs offense that needs no help.
While Allatoona (2-0) piled up 13 hits and seven earned runs, Adairsville junior Taylor Rhoades looked incredibly sharp in the circle with six strikeouts to one walk. The right-hander got ahead in counts the entire game, and despite struggling to finish off batters, Rhoades gave up mostly soft grounders through the infield and bloop hits into the outfield.
"The score doesn't reflect that with the errors behind her, but Taylor threw a great game," Nelson said. "She made some adjustments during the game that I asked her to make. She kept her attitude positive and stayed up for the entire game."
On the offensive side, the Tigers, who only struck out one time, managed to get runners in scoring position with regularity but rarely found the key hit to spring a rally. Even though Adairsville only collected four hits, the Tigers had just one inning where they went down in order.
Junior Sadye Johnson put the visitors on the board with a two-run homer to center field in the third inning, scoring Katie Smith. Victoria O'Neal, who forms the other half of Adairsville's solid one-two punch in the circle, drove home Alexa Varner, who reached on a double, with an RBI single in the fifth.
Chloe Souders walked and had the Tigers' other hit, as she and Varner, who was hit by the game's first pitch, each finished 1-for-2.
"When we have our runners on second and third, we've got to get those hits to move them," Nelson said, adding that those wasted opportunities were a major talking point after the game. "We've got to put it on the ground, not be selfish at bat and work for the team. That's what we're going to work on."
There's not much time to try to immediately fix things, as Adairsville travels to LaFayette for a game Thursday afternoon. But after getting the initial game out of the way, perhaps the Tigers will come out sharper.
At least that's what Nelson is hoping will happen.
"It's a quick season for softball, so we have to be able to put things behind us, shake it off quickly and win the next moment," she said. "I feel like our girls are capable of doing that, so I expect to see better competition from our girls [Thursday] night."